When, deep into our time together, I asked Kobe about the rape allegations, he pushed aside my questions. “I ... uh ... hum,” he said. “I don't know how to touch on that without really sayin’—you know what I'm sayin’?”
When I asked him about the charges of aloofness, he had an answer I didn’t expect.
“The aloofness thing, honestly, I didn’t really hear about it until later,” he said.
“A lot of it was just naive, because I didn’t read the papers. I didn’t watch, like, the news. I had no clue what was going on, what people were saying about me. It sounds silly to say, but it’s true. And I think because of that, a lot of people looked at it like, ‘Woah, he must be arrogant.’ But I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I had a reporter one day come up to me and ask me about it, you know, ‘People think you’re arrogant, what’s up with that?’ And it absolutely just seemed to come out of left field. I was just like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he was like, ‘Haven’t you read the papers?’ From that day forward, I started reading the papers.”
After he said that, I started to understand him better.
The last day we met, I asked Kobe if he’d sign one of his size-14 Nikes for my son, whose birthday was in a few weeks. He’d grown up watching Kobe with me. To us, Kobe was more than just a player, and the Lakers were more than just a team; our fandom was something we shared, game after game, season after season. It was woven into the fabric of our relationship.
After Kobe signed the shoe, I took it from him and put it safely with my things, made ready to get on with the formal interview we had scheduled.
Kobe held up the other shoe. “You want me to sign this for you?” he asked.
Although his last years in the league were hard to watch, the years that followed were different.
Just as he’d remade his body and his shot, time and again throughout his career, in retirement, Kobe transformed himself into an Oscar-winning Renaissance man—a doer of good deeds, an unparalleled basketball analyst, an enthusiastic coach of his own children and others’, a much-sought-after pro-basketball-player-whisperer. A distinguished new elder statesman for the league, he was eternally a star among the stars.
When the news of Kobe’s death first came across the transom—the first thing I saw was an alert from TMZ—my son and I were driving home from a boys’ weekend we’d enjoyed with his best pal. My son is 25 now. The night before, we’d watched the Lakers game together as LeBron James surpassed Kobe’s NBA scoring record. Kobe’s tweet of congratulations was shown during the TV coverage. It was a classy move, we agreed, with a certain pride of ownership. More than a player, Kobe is a bond we share. We knew him when. And thanks to the magic of video, what he did on the court will always remain.
As I write this, that second shoe, the one he signed for me, is sitting on a shelf here in my office, the place where I have always pursued my own craft. Like Kobe, I have spent a lifetime of effort and dedication trying to be the best I can be. And like Kobe, I have endured my share of ups and downs.
Often, I remember something he told me.
“You have to be open-minded and not be rigid,” he said. “If you’re rigid, that’s weakness. All you can do is forget about the bad stuff and then move on. You just kind of roll with it; you just kind of learn. I will not make the same mistakes in the future that I have made in the past. I will make new mistakes, I am sure. And I will learn from them, too.”